A cry from medieval England

The first English translation of a 13th century Hebrew poet


Of English Jewry in the Middle Ages, few of us probably know much beyond the worst instances of persecution — the blood libels of Norwich and Lincoln, the York Massacre and eventually expulsion in 1290. Jewish culture of the time remains largely obscure. But now we have been given a rare glimpse into it with this first English translation of the poems of Meir ben Eliyahu of Norwich.

Written in the 13th century, the Hebrew texts did not resurface until 600 years later and have now been translated by two retired East Anglia University academics, Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth. These poems are “a medieval cry” across the centuries from a beleaguered community, wrties Kieron Pym in the introduction to the slim volume, “reportage from the underworld”.

In a Havdalah poem, the standard spiritual division between light and darkness is shot through with the poignancy of a yearning to be lifted from the gloom of oppression. In his longest piece, a compressed retelling of the Bible from Creation to the crossing of the Red Sea, the contemporary travails of medieval Jews intrude into the narrative when Meir exclaims, “We go like cattle to the slaughter/A slayer stands above us all.”

A set of short religious love poems evokes a passion for God that is mostly only familiar to us now through the Shabbat hymn Anim Zmerot. Above all, these poems speak of a depth of faith that keeps despair at bay: “Even in Egypt’s bondage, I shall soar;/I shall prolong my singing to the Lord.”

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